Much of what we think of as Christmas comes from Dickens
The next to last review of the year looks at a seminal work in the creation of “Christmas as we have known it” for the last 190 years or so years (I think Clement Moore has to get a nod for “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” for giving us our initial envisioning of Santa Claus). Charles Dickens’ Christmas “story” (really a novella) A Christmas Carol is responsible for many of the rest of our conceptions of how Christmas should be celebrated: holly, carolers, roast goose, snow, merriment, the indulgence of children, and charity acts towards our neighbors.
The story, characters, and message are so familiar that recounting them seems pointless. One could, instead, write a fascinating book about the liberties, variations and perversions that have been committed upon the elements of Dickens’ classic. A recent version includes mice as prominent supporting characters and portrays Scrooge’s rehabilitation/redemption as a childish act of avoiding punishment rather than as a recognition of his error in choosing greed as guiding principle for his life and a sincere attempt to reconnect with humanity that is the thematic heart of Dickens’ work.
That said, reading the original tale, especially after having seen a deal of film and television adaptations (including versions starring distinguished talents such as Reginald Owen, Albert Finney, George C. Scott, Michael Caine, and Patrick Stewart as Scrooge), I would note for anyone who, like I had never actually read A Christmas Carol before, two important points about the original:
1) Scrooge’s alteration – his recognition of what he has lost by pursuing money at the exclusion of all else – is largely accomplished by the end of his encounter with The Ghost of Christmas Past. The visits by The Ghost of Christmas Present and The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come serve the important purposes of focusing his future benevolence (as in making him aware of Tiny Tim, the emblem of needy children) and reminding him of his own mortality (no small thing since the harbinger of his visitations was the ghost of his partner in business – and inhumanity – Jacob Marley).
2) Dickens’ emphasis on games and frivolity, which he justifies by arguing that adults acting like children is right and proper behavior since Christmas is a celebration of Him who came as a child, serves as a counterpoint to the religious seriousness of the holiday. “Making merry,” in other words, is good – indeed, preferred Christmas behavior – as long as one is cognizant of and willing to be generous and help others to be merry.
It is important to note that Dickens gave us not just this, the archetype of all Christmas tales, but several other Christmas novellas (The Cricket on the Hearth, The Chimes, The Haunted Man, The Battle of Life) and a raft of Christmas short stories including such delights as “The Poor Relation’s Story” and “A Christmas Tree.” His commitment to the promotion of customs of the holiday, especially the propagation of merriment and the practice of generosity, was hearty and heartfelt. Given Dickens’ own difficult childhood, perhaps Christmas was a time remembered as a respite from poverty and hardship. The Christmas tales, especially A Christmas Carol, were his way of reminding himself – and us – that, think whatever we do of Christmas as a religious holiday, its importance as a break from the relentlessness of what Wordsworth decried as “getting and spending” has a value we would all do well to appreciate.